As the first year of the Obama administration draws to a close, Democrats would do well to celebrate their successes this year and look to the future, rather than dwell on the funk that seems to embrace many of its supporters these days.
While the numbers have fluctuated within normal statistical margins, throughout 2009 Pew research has indicated that the Democrats have held around a 1.5:1 party identification lead over the Republicans. During the course of the year between 48% and 53% of Americans identified with or leaned to the Democrats while between 35% and 40% identified with or leaned to the GOP. This Democratic advantage is significantly higher than it was in the Clinton years of the 1990s, when the Democrats' lead averaged about five percentage points. It is particularly large compared with 1994, the year the Democrats lost their congressional majority to the Gingrich revolution, when the two parties were tied in party ID at 44% each.
In fact, the competitive position of the Democratic Party now approaches what it was in the mid-1960s, when it was the unquestioned dominant force in U.S. politics. In a 1964 Gallup survey, conducted just prior to Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, the Democrats' party identification lead over the GOP was 49% to 24%.
Underpinning this rebound in the Democratic Party's competitive position is a major generational and ethnic transformation of America. It is a very different looking America now than it was in 1964, but the Democratic Party is once again far better positioned to benefit in the future from the opportunities presented by our changing nation.
--In 1964, about ninety percent of Americans were white as were more than eight in ten (82%) of those who identified as Democrats. Today the "minority" contribution to America's population has nearly tripled and non-Caucasians comprise about four in ten Democratic identifiers. By mid-century the United States will become a "majority-minority" country, however, as in the mid-1960s, more than 95% of Republicans are white.
--In 1964, only a minority of women worked outside the home and almost all women married by the time they were 25. Now women, many of whom are unmarried or minority, comprise more than six in ten Democratic identifiers. Virtually all of the women who do call themselves Republican are white and most are married.
--In 1964, nearly half of the electorate had only a high school education. An additional third had gone no further than grade school. Just one in five were college graduates. Now, a majority of Americans have at least some college exposure and nearly three in ten are college graduates. While, as in 1964, about 30% of Republican identifiers are college graduates, the percentage of college graduates among Democrats has doubled from 14% to 28%.
--the 1964 electorate was dominated by the GI Generation (born 1901-1924), the generation of the New Deal and World War II, and the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900), that primarily came of age around World War I and in the 1920s. About half of the 1964 Democrats were members of the GI Generation, who identified with that party by a 2:1 margin. Half of 1964 Republican identifiers were from the Lost Generation which by then was a generation of senior citizens. Today, with a completely different generational configuration than in 1964, the GOP still skews relatively old and the Democrats young. Like the GI Generation before them, Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, overwhelmingly identify as Democrats over Republicans (58% vs. 19% in a November 2009 Pew survey).
In 2008, only 40% of Millennials were eligible to vote and they comprised about 17% of the American electorate. When Barack Obama runs for reelection in 2012, about 60% of Millennials will be of voting age and one in four voters will be a Millennial. By 2020, when virtually all of them will be able to vote, more than a third of the electorate (36%) will come from the Millennial Generation. As the largest (95 million) and most ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history (40% of Millennials are non-white) the Democratic Party should benefit from their loyalty at least as much over the next three or four decades as did the attachment of the GI Generation to the Democrats in the middle-third of the 20th Century.
The United States is a changed and continually changing nation. Taken together, these changes have made America a more diverse and more open nation. This should let the Democratic Party face the future with confidence and courage. But, the Democratic Party's opportunities cannot be taken for granted. The first step in taking advantage of these opportunities for Democrats would be to start building a future for America built on this reality and letting go of the timidity and tentativeness that seems to have been their governing motif in 2009.